Police search of cellphones is invasion of privacy


Would you feel comfortable allowing everything in your cellphone to be viewed by the world?

Probably not. The information kept in our smartphones — essentially small computers — is often personal, from pictures to text conversations to phone numbers and addresses.

Not wanting to make all the digital data in the phones public has nothing to do with criminal behavior (in most cases), but personal privacy. It is simply none of other people’s business.

Yet, some law enforcement agencies have been treating confiscation of cellphones as if it were a pocketknife.

As a result, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments today in two cases of warrantless searches of cellphones.

A drug dealer and gang member asked the court to rule searches of their cellphones after their arrests violated their right to privacy.

In a case out of California, prosecutors used video and photographs found on the suspect’s smartphone to persuade a jury to convict him of attempted murder.

In Boston a suspect was arrested on suspicion of selling crack cocaine. The evidence against him was obtained when police checked the call log on his flip cellphone.

The court’s decision in the two cases will have a ripple effect across the nation.

The Obama administration, in defending the cellphone searches, contends they are no different from anything else a person may be carrying when arrested. Those items can be searched without a warrant, dating back to high court cases 40 years ago.

But there is an expectation of privacy for the contents of cellphones, which is why manufacturers include a way for users to lock the contents

While we have zero sympathy for the two suspects (who are likely guilty as charged), we agree with their attorneys that warrants should have been obtained.

“Cellphones and other portable electronic devices are, in effect, our new homes,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a court filing that urged the court to apply the same standards to cellphone searches as homes.

That sounds about right.

If police have reason to suspect evidence is in a cellphone, computer or any other electronic device, they should have to get a search warrant. It could be done relatively easily without allowing the suspect to destroy the information.

But if police have absolutely no reason to suspect someone of a crime, they shouldn’t be allowed to fish for evidence through random searches of cellphones in the hope of discovering criminal activity.

Without any judicial oversight, the police could, for no particular reason, scroll through your cellphones fishing for information as a way to monitor you, and you, and you.


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